Media

The Breitbart Effect: Why Weiner's Boring (Non-) Sex Scandal Is Getting More Play Than Republicans' Sordid Sexcapades

The sensational interest in Weinergate is a sad reflection of our shallow, sex-and-celebrity-obsessed culture.

Weinergate, as it has been dubbed by pundits across the political spectrum, must be the lamest (non-)sex scandal to come down the pike in years, yet it seems to be getting as much play as Watergate.

That such trivia as an adult sending relatively benign photos and “racy messages” to other consenting adults should be of interest to anyone besides the Representative's wife – much less the making of a week-long “news” story – is obviously a sad reflection of our shallow, sex-and-celebrity-obsessed culture.

But it's also a testament to what you might call the "Breitbart effect" – the ability of conservative activists to push a news story to the forefront of the national discussion, and hold it there for an extended run. Breitbart, like the Drudge Report and a host of other dedicated right-wing provocateurs, has learned the value of gaming the refs – of hounding the mainstream media with angry and unsubstantiated accusations of “liberal bias” for so long the latter tend to overcompensate and give prominence to whatever story the activists are interested in amplifying.

Don't take it from me. As Eric Alterman noted, former GOP chair Rich Bond acknowledged in a candid moment that, “There is some strategy” to the Right's conspiracy theories about the media being hopelessly biased toward the left. ”If you watch any great coach,” he said, “what they try to do is 'work the refs.' Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one.”

In their 2006 book, The Way to Win, ABC News political director Mark Halperin and Washington Postnational political editor John Harris famously wrote that “Drudge rules our world,” calling Breitbart's former mentor “the Walter Cronkite of his era,” and noting that "there is no outlet other than the Drudge Report whose dispatches instantly can command the attention and energies of the most established newspapers and television newscasts." But now that Breitbart's string of Big This and That sites have hit the scene, that's no longer the case.

They brought down ACORN with a Big Lie (the media still credulously report that James O'Keefe visited ACORN's offices dressed like a pimp) and put Planned Parenthood in the GOP's crosshairs with a similar stunt. This kind of guerilla media works.

That's not to suggest that the story doesn't have inherent prurient appeal – it does. But Breitbart's antics – as well as Weiner's own bungled efforts to contain the damage – have made this lusterless, rather bovine “scandal” a huge sensation across the political spectrum for an entire week, and as of this writing it doesn't appear to be losing momentum. The Huffington Post live-blogged the unfolding non-drama and Amanda Marcotte and Dana Goldstein have been debating the ramifications of Weinergate here at AlterNet and on the Nation's blog for several days.

There's a feedback loop in play: Conservatives get hold of a story and hector the media into giving it outsized coverage. That coverage makes the story appear to be a big deal, which in turn attracts lots of viewers and readers. Then, seeing all those eyeballs on the story tells the media it is of great import to their readers and viewers, so they focus yet more energy on it.

That has certainly been the case with this latest teapot tempest. Setting aside the fact that Anthony Weiner's pseudo-scandal has bumped real news – several wars, an economy slumping back into recession and a variety of political games surrounding the debt ceiling, just to name a few -- the coverage has been wildly disproportionate to some real and genuinely unseemly scandals that garnered a fraction of the breathless coverage Weinergate has featured.

Remember that until a fuzzy cell-phone pic alleged to be the Congressman's penis was released early this week, this whole brouhaha was about the kind of PG-rated photos that can be found in any men's clothing catalogue being sent to people Weiner had never met, much less touched. Contrast that tepid example of stupidity with the tale of Senator David Vitter, R-Louisiana, donning an oversized diaper in order to play mommy-games with random prostitutes. The Vitter story made the rounds for a few days, died down and he was easily re-elected in 2010.

Former Senator John Ensign, R-Nevada, shtupped the wife of his chief of staff and then skirted federal law to hush him up with a cushy lobbying job. The sordid affair was a non-story for two years until an ethics probe was launched, leading to Ensign's resignation.

Former Rep. Don Sherwood, R-Pennsylvania, allegedly beat the hell out of his mistress of five years just a couple of months before getting re-elected in 2004. The incident didn't even make the news until the following year. While members of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are calling for Weiner's resignation, the Republicans spent well over a million dollars defending Sherwood's seat.

Even disgraced Rep. Chris Lee, R-New York, also busted for posting a tame shirtless photo to the Internet, may well have resigned to hide the fact that he was trolling Craigslist for transexuals.

And, unlike Anthony Weiner, all of those pols were “family values” types – self-appointed moral scolds telling others how they should or shouldn't express their own sexuality. Weinergate lacks their hypocrisy entirely – this is a man who never blamed any substantial issue on the imagined loss of some kind of idealized past in which innocence and chastity were supposedly the norm.

Ultimately, Weiner's just a horny dork with a Twitter account – a guy with some penchants that nobody outside his family should even begin to care about. But Breitbart appears to rule our world, so we'll have to suffer through days of additional analysis of this perfect distraction of a “story.”